Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem


Oliver Hayden (third from left) and colleagues at his retirement party, 1959. CHF Collections.

Izaak M. Kolthoff

Izaak M. Kolthoff. CHF Collections.

These meetings, which included Baker, Marvel, Izaak M. Kolthoff of the University of Minnesota, Peter Debye (a Dutch chemist and future Nobel laureate, who joined Cornell University after leaving Germany), and Flory, among others, served as the communications hub for laboratories across the nation. The multitude of meetings, committees, and monthly reports due from participating laboratories meant that scientists were held accountable for their levels of collaboration and research; these reports and meetings thoroughly documented cooperation. Fuller noted that there were various types of meetings and information exchanges for the scientists involved: the monthly meetings, the Polymer Discussion Group general meetings, and four special committees on Modifier Action, Locus of Reaction, Polymer Structure, and Research Analysis. Indeed the focus was not just on the furious pace of research but also on the collaborative nature of that research. No patents would benefit any one institution as all rubber research was to be shared equally. Simply put, the federal government demanded that all chemists involved collaborate: no ifs, ands, or buts. As the meetings went on, more and more laboratories and chemists participated in the massive project, making it an extensive network of chemists that used all the skills and resources available.

Overcoming Divisions

Oliver Hayden

Oliver Hayden in the Rubber Office, 1941. CHF Collections.

Despite the recruiting efforts of the government, Fuller, and Roberts, industrial scientists initially resisted enlistment in the rubber project. Many were concerned about the future of the patents after the war: would the government own all the patents that came from solving the rubber problem? Baker explained the resistance further: 

Hear William Baker: You see, we were in a great hurry and we had to use every resort possible to call on all the background and all of the foreground of knowledge of synthetic rubber. So these were little communities. They'd never talked to each other before.  No.  It was like being a traitor if you talked to someone. Right there in Akron, if Goodyear talked to Goodrich, that was the end of it.  We had to overcome that by nationalizing, by creating community feelings and patriotic feelings and the rest. In those terms the groups still maintained their identity and they acted as groups all right. (56)

 Fuller noted that after priorities were set, work went smoothly, as institutions and chemists understood the tasks at hand and, under the new framework provided by the federal government, easily gained the collaborators and resources necessary: “We had a free hand to set up contracts with universities and the rubber company labs who could contribute, including the four big rubber companies and Standard Oil.” Fuller recalled that: 

finally things took shape and we had a strong polymer research group consisting of chemists and chemical engineers from the four big rubber companies, about twelve universities, at least two government labs, and about five or six chemical companies. A uniform system of reporting results was arranged. What we called CR reports could be written at any time, but were usually given at meetings of the Polymer Discussion Group, consisting of representatives of the contractors. At the start, R.R. [Robert R. Williams] and I visited all the contractees, usually on separate routes, to help the personnel get oriented and tell them what was expected of them. But this was done in broad terms and there was much freedom to innovate. (32)

Thus, this broad, varied group of talented chemists was set to work in an orderly and disciplined manner—but each member was allowed to use the full range of their creative research abilities to solve the rubber problem.

New Rubber, New Instrument

The innovative nature of synthetic rubber research led to advances in analytical instrumentation, such as the Beckman IR-1.  Read More >

Building Synthetic Rubber Plants

Synthetic rubber production required approximately 50 new plants, fraught with engineering hurdles.  Read More >

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